Conflict on the construction site is a safety concern

Oct. 19, 2022

Resolve it by showing empathy, brainstorming solutions with involved parties

By MJ MacDonald

A construction site is no stranger to conflict: someone took someone else’s tape measure without asking for the tenth time; another person made a crack about a colleague’s work ethic; a sub challenges the superintendent’s orders; a super continuously assigns an undesirable, menial task to worker who is not happy about it. And the list goes on.

In today’s economic climate, conflict can be exacerbated by the fact that construction workers are under increased pressure to get job done quickly. There’s high demand in the marketplace for construction services but a serious lack of qualified workers to complete the job. According to Statistics Canada, there are currently 81,000 openings for construction workers across the country — 16 per cent higher than the same time last year. In Nova Scotia specifically, our government has a goal of doubling our current population to 2 million by 2060, which will require even more construction workers to build the required housing and infrastructure.

Conflict on the work site has serious potential to set us back from achieving our business goals. Additionally, conflict on the site has a very real impact on a worker’s psychological safety, mental health and can contribute to poor physical safety as well.

Conflict and psychological safety

By now we are all well aware that mental health is a real issue at workplaces across the country. Safety managers and employers need to ensure they are providing a psychologically safe environment, and that includes managing conflict when it arises and preventing it as much as possible. Conflict can cause both short term and long-term emotional harm. It can lead to high levels of stress, depression, anxiety, isolation, and poor self esteem. It is not a pleasant work environment for an individual who is dreading showing up on site because he/she has a significant beef with another colleague.

Conflict can not only affect the individuals involved, but it can also affect the entire group as well. Who wants to work in a place where they are always on pins and needles wondering if Johnny and Mark are going to break out into a fight at any point? Conflict can poison the work culture and lead to disengaged employees who are distracted and more prone to working unsafely.

According to our 2021 Construction Safety Nova Scotia member survey, 40 percent of members are very interested and 37 percent are somewhat interested in attending a course on mental health first aid. This tells us that taking care of the mental health of their workers is something that is very top of mind for construction employers in the province.

Conflict and physical safety

When there is conflict on the construction site, it can take the mind off task for workers. Instead of making sure they are tying off, wearing all their PPE, and following safe work procedures, they are thinking about their recent disagreement. They are distracted — and we know distraction is safety’s enemy. If they are not focused on the task at hand and doing it safely, then injuries or near misses are more likely.

Conflict can also lead to a negative safety culture where workers are not as likely to help each other out or take the time to point out near misses. Let’s be honest: You’re more likely to help someone who is kind and respectful to you than someone who is not.

Managing conflict

Fortunately, there are many ways safety managers and employers can intervene to stop conflict as soon as it rears its ugly head on the construction site (or any work site for that matter).

First, act quickly.

When you see conflict or tension on a site, don’t ignore it. It might be a quick disagreement that can easily be resolved, or it might require a deeper dive with more formal discussions with all parties involved to get to the root of the problem.

Assuming it’s a deeper issue, take time away from the site where both parties can tell their side of the story. Actively listen, show empathy, take notes, and ask questions to ensure you fully understand the issue and each person’s interest. It’s important to focus on issues and facts, not the person or opinions.

Next, work on resolving the conflict itself. Encourage compromise and help both parties understand the other’s point of view. Involve them in shaping the solution. Do they have any ideas for how we can move forward in a positive manner? Buy-in is always better if employees can participate in the solution. Come up with a few possible solutions that satisfy both parties. Brainstorming is key! If they can’t both agree on a solution and you’ve got a stalemate, let them know you will take some time to consider both sides and will make a decision that’s right for the business. Make sure your decision is not based on personal factors or winning or losing, but rather it is a business decision like all others.

Ensure the solution is well planned out, considering the who, what, when, where, and why, and then put it into action. Importantly, make sure you evaluate the success of your solution. Did it solve the problem? Does it need to be revaluated and tried again?


At CSNS, we recommend that all site supervisors and managers be trained in conflict resolution. As with other safety skills, we can’t expect supervisors to diffuse arguments or correct disrespectful behaviours without being taught the skills on how to defuse the situation. In fact, the risk of making things worse if they don’t know how to properly intervene is significant.

To avoid conflict in the first place, supervisors and management need to make sure they set clear expectations for their teams, the subcontractors (if applicable), and everyone else who will be on site.

It’s important they understand the following causes of conflict so they can work to avoid these behaviours on their sites:

  • Uneven distribution of workload
  • Unequal treatment
  • Personality differences
  • Lack of recognition
  • Limited resources
  • Task interdependence
  • Incompatible goals
  • Communication issues
  • Cultural differences
  • Racism

Business leaders and safety managers in the construction sector need to take a close look at conflict on their sites. Too often, it is considered a part of the job in the construction sector. Reducing conflict, means better productivity and safety, with direct impact to a company’s bottom line.

Having a policy outlining expectations, investing in the training and tools for supervisors and managers to prevent and manage conflict, and modeling the right behaviours will pay off for companies. They will be seen as more welcoming, a good place to work and retain valued employees.

All of these benefits help a company to be more successful and profitable. Good relationships are good business.

MJ MacDonald is the CEO of Construction Safety Nova Scotia.